Duke University Alumni Magazine


Photo: Les Todd

Psychology professor Irwin Kremen has remade himself more than once--from journalist to academic to artist. His latest exhibit in Chicago comprises seventy-nine works selected from his artistic output over the last twenty-five years.

hirty-four years ago, Irwin Kremen undertook a seemingly playful personal experiment, not knowing that it would transform his life. At the instigation of his longtime friend, writer and potter M.C. Richards, he juxtaposed a few interesting-looking scraps of colored, patterned cloth, sewed them together on a black fabric backing, and created a small abstract collage.

Forty-one years old at the time, Kremen was a relative newcomer to Duke, where he had been an assistant professor of psychology for three years. It was the late 1960s, and his life at that time paralleled the social and cultural realities of the era. It was for him a period of "fresh ferment" and intellectual "upheaval."

Papers and metals: left, Washington Run, ©1985 Irwin Kremen, paper, paint, and fabric, 7 x 4 5/8 inches. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; center, Point, Arc, and Plane, ©1981 Irwin Kremen, paper, silk, packing tape, and photomechanical transfer paper, 6 3/8 x 3 1/2 inches. Collection of Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. Gift of R. Philip Hanes Jr.; right, Late American Gothic, ©1990 Irwin Kremen, mixed iron and steel, 57 3/4 x 23 3/4 x 11 inches. Collection of Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.
Photos: Les Todd

Although he was less than delighted with the results of a second collage attempt, in which he combined pieces of cutout paper imprinted with iconic images and block letters, he found the process stimulating enough to make another collage several months later, then another. It wasn't long before he was using paper and a variety of other materials to compose and construct small, delicately nuanced, non-representational collages on a regular basis.

While continuing to maintain his academic career, Kremen involved himself in his private art-making process with increasing intensity. He showed his work only to those closest to him until, at the urging of Richards and other friends involved in the contemporary art world, he went public with it in 1978. Through a series of fortuitous connections, his work came to the attention of curators at the Smithsonian Institution's National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art). They were so impressed that they offered to give him a solo exhibition, which they soon did in collaboration with the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem. The show appeared at SECCA in 1978 and moved to the National Collection the next year.

Having an internationally prominent museum host one's debut exhibit, complete with an illustrated catalogue, is the stuff artists' dreams are made of, and it made for an auspicious beginning to Kremen's sideline career. The richly textured, ragged-edged collages he was then making vaguely recalled certain strains of Abstract-Expressionist painting, albeit on a much-reduced scale. They quickly found a ready audience.

From the close of the 1970s, Kremen's art career unfolded and evolved at a steady pace. When he retired from the Duke faculty in 1992, art became his full-time occupation. Having won critical praise in the pages of such publications as Artforum, ARTnews, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post, his art has made a distinct impact in the contemporary art world. His works can now be found in the permanent collections of fourteen art museums and have appeared in more than thirty solo exhibitions and twenty-five group shows across this country and in Japan.

Last spring, he celebrated his seventy-fifth birthday with an exhibit that he describes as a peak in his second career. Titled "As Such: Collages and Sculptures by Irwin Kremen," a two-month show in his boyhood hometown was presented at the Chicago Cultural Center in its high-profile Michigan Avenue Galleries. It comprised seventy-nine works selected from his artistic output over the last twenty-five years. Most of them were intimately scaled collages of the kind he has made from the outset, but the show also included seven of the metal sculptures that he has been making since the late 1970s, as well as three recent mixed-media wall pieces that he calls "relief combines."

Kremen's metamorphosis from psychology professor into artist wasn't his first re-creation of himself. Just as he transforms worn paper scraps and other ordinary materials into jewel-like works of art, he has undergone a series of personal transformations that led him to other career tracks before he became a psychologist or made a name for himself in art. By the time he began studying psychology, in his late twenties, he had been a political activist, a journalist, a poet, a short-fiction writer, and an editor.

"A life is a very complicated business," he says. "My life was very clouded at the beginning, but over the course of it, the overriding ambition was for its powers to mature, whatever those powers might be. They had to be discovered, and that took quite a while."

He looks much as he does in John Menapace's informal, twenty-two-year-old photographs that appear in the catalogue for Kremen's first exhibition. He still has the same dark, friendly, thoughtfully engaged eyes, and he doesn't appear to have put on much weight in the last two decades. But his thick, longish dark hair is now streaked with silver, and the skin around his eyes shows signs of his advancing age. On an unusually mild July day, he is casually dressed in a short-sleeved khaki sport shirt, matching slacks, and leather sandals over white socks.

Countless books, tightly jammed into bookcases in almost every room, give the Kremens' house the smell of a library. On that day, and for the preceding two and a half months, the interior walls--usually lined with some of Kremen's collages--are almost bare since most of these pieces have been loaned for the Chicago exhibit. A few of his smaller metal sculptures are displayed atop tables and on two built-in bookcases flanking the living-room fireplace, along with a handful of artifacts and other special objects in spare, altar-like arrangements.

Kremen conceived his new "relief combines," he says, out of a desire to make a few wall pieces whose sizes would more closely complement those of his sculptures, which tend to be larger--sometimes vastly larger--than the collages. That concept was eventually realized in the form of three works, Seriatim I, II, and III. Each of the two larger pieces in this series--one of which was placed in each of the two galleries that housed his exhibit--measures roughly eight feet across and is organized around a series of five horizontally arrayed panels. Noting that these works combine elements of collage, painting, and sculpture, he says they required him to depart from his usual working approach.

Paperwork and composition: sorting and cutting collage elements, left; comparing colors and textures, below
Photo: Les Todd

"My general way of working is to start with a heap of materials before me, selecting from them, then arranging and rearranging the elements, often altering them by many different kinds of manipulations," he says. "With these larger panels and materials that are more difficult to manipulate, I had to conceive the works beforehand and visualize them imaginatively to know what I needed and how they would go with everything else. I had to make maquette after maquette, one start revised by another and another, until I got what I wanted.

"I conceived the panels so that when I put them together on the wall, they dance. By this, I mean that the piece has a rhythm as the eye moves across the wall from left to right. I didn't know what the visual content would be other than that it would have this rhythm. I had to establish the size of each panel, and then I decided what would go on them."

Kremen grew up near Garfield Park, on Chicago's West Side, and he spent much of his youth working for his father's wholesale men's-clothing distributorship. The seeds of his later interests may have been sown in those years.

His voracious childhood reading habit prefigured his later enthusiasm for writing and scholarly pursuits, while his childhood interests in collecting cigar bands and postage stamps foreshadowed his much later practice of foraging for singular paper scraps to use in his collages. The fascination with color that later proved to be a key element in his art-making was also manifested in his adolescent activities of butterfly collecting and birdwatching. "I don't think I was interested in the animals per se," he once wrote. "When you come down to it, the patch of color on the wing, and the hunt for it, is what stirred me."

Having enjoyed serving as editor of his high-school newspaper, Kremen entered the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. During the nearly three years he spent there, he became heavily involved in campus politics, and he was active in a U.S. congressional campaign launched by his academic adviser, a progressive Democrat. But a few months later, his interests began shifting to literature and what was then its avant-garde. He began writing poetry, quit school, and spent five months as a reporter and columnist for a local daily newspaper, a job that enabled him to finance a move to New York City.

There, a few months later, he read an article about Black Mountain College, the small, experimental arts school in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. "I immediately got on the train and went down there," he says, "and I decided that was the place for me to go."

It was at Black Mountain that Kremen met M.C. Richards, then the school's principal teacher of literature and writing. "I went to Black Mountain to write, not to take courses," he says. "So I paid absolutely no attention to my courses, except those I took with M.C.

--a course in [James] Joyce, her poetry seminar, and one in literary criticism."

Among the other ultimately influential figures to whom he was exposed at Black Mountain--a school that would financially fail and permanently close only ten years later--were German expatriate artist Josef Albers and other soon-to-be-famous exponents of modern painting and design. As creatively lively as that environment was, Kremen left after a year in order to marry a young woman who left Black Mountain for a more conventional education at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. After a semester there, they moved to New York. The marriage lasted five years, and Kremen remained in the city for eight.

He worked in a series of jobs--as a bookstore clerk, copy editor, accountant, style-manual writer, and out-of-print-book scout. He continued to write during those years. It was also at this time that he met several key individuals in the New York art world, some of whom, such as avant-garde composer John Cage, dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham, and pianist David Tudor, became lifelong friends. (Cage dedicated his famously controversial 1952 piano composition, 4'33''--in which no musical notes are played for the four-minute, thirty-three-second duration--to Kremen.)

Of Red and White, 1994, ©1998 Irwin Kremen, paper, 12 5/8 x 10 3/8 inches. Collection of Danielle Epstein, New York, N.Y.
Photo: Les Todd

The most enduringly important changes in his life during this key transitional period were the beginning of his relationship with Barbara Herman and the development of his interest in psychology. He and Herman first met in 1952, at a concert at which Tudor played music by Cage and other modern composers. They were married about three years later.

Noting that Herman completed the last two courses for her master's degree in literature from Harvard University not long after they met, Kremen says, "I had been dead-set against academia. I thought it bourgeois--

a late-adolescent idea that I stubbornly clung to. But I agreed to give it a try, and lit on taking psych for a start at the New School for Social Research. The introductory course hardly excited me, but I persisted, and the second, in social psychology, taught by Joseph Greenbaum, fired me up.

"The subject matter stimulated me intellectually--especially the area of culture and personality, as well as the mode of reasoning of the experimental method. Greenbaum urged me to apply to Harvard, to the interdisciplinary department of social relations, where I could not only receive a degree in clinical psychology, but would also have to study social anthropology, sociology, and social psychology. The wide intellectual range of that department appealed to me very much. So, not only did I set my sights on graduate work there, but I became highly directed in working toward that. I was determined and single-minded about it."

While holding down a job as an editor for a publishing house, Kremen went on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology, with special honors, in 1955, the year he turned thirty. Soon after finishing at the New School, he embarked on his graduate studies in clinical psychology at Harvard, where he received his Ph.D. in 1961.

Deathgate, 1995, ©1996 Irwin Kremen, mixed iron and steel, 62 x 133 x 106 inches. Collection of the artist.
Photo: Les Todd

The score of years that followed Kremen's graduation from the New School constituted a period of sharp, two-fold focus for him as he concentrated his powers largely on his academic career and his family. Armed with his new doctorate, he was hired as an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University in East Lansing. During his two years there he developed a reputation as a popular teacher, with 600 students signing up for one of his lecture classes. It was largely on that basis that he was hired to join Duke's psychology faculty in 1963, according to his departmental colleague, Robert C. Carson, emeritus professor of psychology.

Bruce Pennington Ph.D. '77, now a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, vividly recalls the year-long graduate seminar in personality theory that he took with Kremen. "He's the kind of person who made a big impact on you," Pennington says. "He's a very strong personality who has very deep scientific and artistic convictions. He had this real passion about the philosophy

of science and how that could make psychology a better science. He had a profound impact on my thinking as a scientist, and he had an enormous impact on a lot of the other people in that class, too. It was probably one of the best and most demanding courses I've ever taken. Kremen is very deeply and well-read; and he was a very demanding teacher. He wanted you to think rigorously about issues, and he was impatient with sloppy thinking."

Carson recalls that Kremen's academic career took something of an unwanted detour as a result of an administrative position. After he had been at Duke for only a year, he was appointed director of the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Training Program. He held the post for seven years, during which time--in 1969--he was given tenure.

When Carson himself took over the position in 1971, Kremen had been making collages for five years. Carson remembers Kremen's office as having been full of his artwork by that time. "When he wasn't doing this highly demanding administrative work, he was beginning to do his artistic work," he says, "and, after a while, that just overtook him." He was initially surprised and somewhat amazed at the extent and depth to which Kremen became immersed in making art. "While I knew that he was a very bright and aesthetically sensitive person, I did not know of this tremendous drive that he had to create visual art."

Ji II, ©1998 Irwin Kremen, wasp-nest material, 5 5/8 x 6 1/16 inches. Collection of Stephen A. Wainwright, Durham, N.C.
Photo: Les Todd

A key factor in motivating Kremen to begin regularly making art--as important in its way as M.C. Richards' prompting him to assemble his first collage--was firsthand exposure to the work of Italo Valenti, an Italian collage artist whom Kremen and his wife, Barbara Herman, visited at Valenti's home in Switzerland during the summer of 1966.

Kremen would later describe Valenti's collages as "pure and intense." Noting that he "sensed the quality of their integration," he says the hour he spent with Valenti in the latter's studio led him to quickly grasp "what minimally had to happen before a successful collage came into being." But, he adds, "I could not then have said what it was that I had grasped, nor was I aware that I would shortly act upon it."

In the months after he and his wife returned from that trip, Kremen began collecting and experimenting with scraps of paper. He also tried his hand at drawing and painting, but it was collage that occupied him most intensely. Rather than limiting his materials to paper scraps, he soon began to incorporate a variety of other items into his collages, including seeds, ashes, styrofoam, electrical tape, paint, rust, sandpaper, wire, felt, hospital bandages, mimeograph masters, wood, celluloid, wasps' nests, Plexiglas, blotting paper, string, and asbestos.

The freedom with which Kremen experimented in his early artistic endeavors was, in part, a reflection of his absorption in the art-making process for its own sake and for the sake of the finished work, rather than to fulfill any personal ambition he harbored in relation to his art. "I managed to keep this new activity free from personal conflict and worldly striving for over a decade," he says. "I sought neither status nor privilege nor gain."

By the early 1970s, Kremen had begun to appreciate particularly the special visual qualities of paper that had been open to the elements, such as posters that had been plastered onto the exterior walls of urban buildings, exposed to the weather, and eventually plastered over with newer posters. He began systematically collecting papers of this type, mostly during periodic vacation trips to Europe, and making liberal use of them in his collages.

In the catalogue that accompanied his first exhibition, he described the kinds of papers that appeal to him and discussed his aesthetic response to them: "I hunt out unduplicable papers, experienced papers, papers that have been in sun, in rain, in dust, in snows, covered with the dirt of the city. Yet as I look at them, their flaky surfaces, their weathered colors, I realize their exquisite potential, and gather them in."

In making his collages, Kremen still works in much the same way he has from the beginning. Returning to his studio with his hoard of paper scraps, he sorts through and chooses from them, then meticulously assembles and reassembles the selected shards, often changing them in form and color. Sometime after this composition phase is completed, he begins what he calls the construction phase, painstakingly attaching a collage's various components to each other so that the finished piece can be framed.

Rather than slathering glue on one side of his materials and pressing them tightly onto a backing, as many collagists do, he uses an elaborate, self-devised system of attaching their parts to each other with tiny paper "hinges," to which he applies pinpoints of polyvinyl acetate adhesive. This technique allows the materials to retain their generally ragged edges and their textural qualities. Some parts of his collages are so tiny that he has to set them in place with instruments as delicate as a microelectrode--a microscopically thin tungsten wire used in neurosurgery. Such procedures require him to wear a binocular magnifier headset so he can work with acute precision.

Kremen goes to great lengths to ensure that his finished collages remain intact. For every one of them, he makes a detailed, full-scale schematic drawing that indicates the exact placement of every hinge holding the collage's often fragile components in place and holding the entire collage to its matboard backing. These drawings serve, in effect, as maps to guide the collages' restoration should any of their parts become dislodged, and also to indicate the location of Kremen's signature, which he always places somewhere on a collage's reverse side.

While the mechanics of his collage process have changed little over the years, other aspects of his art have reflected a consistent desire to keep challenging himself, to remain open to new possibilities, and continually to push at the limits of his art.

"A collage is its own content," he insisted at the time of his first exhibit, and he later elaborated by emphasizing that his collages are "non-representational" and "subjectless"--

that they are "presentations, not representations." But by 1980 he found himself violating his own self-imposed rules when he began the "Re'eh Series," a group of collages intended to memorialize victims of the Holocaust. The horizontal gray-brown stripes that dominate this series' first collage, Im Lager, called to his mind the stripes on uniforms that the Nazis forced concentration-camp inmates to wear. He found the ragged fragment of Hebrew script at the top suggestive of both a Torah scroll and a tombstone. Instead of worrying about the logical inconsistency of these references within the context of his previous, "subjectless" work, he followed the referential thematic thread to produce more collages in a related vein in order to complete the series.

Kremen made another important leap in 1988, when he had his first exhibit that included not only collages but also examples of the metal sculptures he had been quietly creating for more than ten years at that time. He has devoted increasing amounts of time and energy to sculpture in the years since that show. His formally ambitious and often structurally complex sculptures have obvious parallels with the collages, particularly their multi-layered components, often ragged edges, and weathered-looking surfaces. But they clearly constitute a separate and distinct body of work. Unlike the collages, they were made to be seen in the round; many of them allude to the human figure, and many of them are quite large.

Seventeen of Kremen's metal sculptures were included with seventy-three of his collages in "The Art of Irwin Kremen," the exhibition with which Duke officially recognized the artistic accomplishments of its psychology department's unofficial artist-in-residence. Prominently installed in the Duke University Museum of Art for the last six weeks of 1990, the show traveled to Toyama, Japan, the spring of the following year. Accompanied by an illustrated catalogue, it was the largest show of Kremen's work ever held at that time.

Among the pieces he exhibited for the first time was Late American Gothic, a figurally related sculpture that he had recently completed. As the title suggests, it makes an overt and ironic reference to American Gothic, the iconic painting of a Midwestern couple posed with a pitchfork in front of their Victorian farmhouse. That painting's creator, Grant Wood (1892-1942), is one of the last American artists one would tend to think of in connection with Kremen. But in its uniquely postmodern, post-industrial way, the sculpture is clearly an homage of sorts. Its two narrow vertical columns, echoing the two agrarian figures in Wood's painting, are made of corroded metal machine parts--artifacts of industrial culture. The taller column is surmounted by a rake-like attachment that evokes the pitchfork held by Wood's stoic farmer. The shorter column--standing in for the farmer's wife--is a rusted steel pipe welded to the center of a metal wheel turned sideways, serving as a base. Attached to the pipe's top is a small device designed to push metal into blast furnaces, and that component is, in turn, connected to a horizontal steel bar, itself wrapped with steel coils, that adjoins the companion column, as if it were the farmer's wife's shoulder, nudging up against his scrawny frame.

Having premiered a decade ago at the university where Kremen taught for thirty years, Late American Gothic recently traveled to Chicago for the "As Such" exhibition. It now has a new home not far away, at his earliest alma mater in nearby Evanston. The Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, on the campus of Northwestern University, recently purchased the sculpture. In late September, the museum opened its newly expanded building, where Late American Gothic is now on public view among selections from the permanent collection. "What I like about that arrangement," says Kremen, "is that Grant Wood's American Gothic is at the Art Institute"--visible from the Block Museum. "It's almost as if they can see each other from across the lake."

As suggested by Late American Gothic, and more generally by his own comments about his intuitively improvisational working process, there remains a strongly playful dimension to Kremen's art. But that's not to say that it's merely a whimsical pastime. In the catalogue for his first exhibit, he said, "While I speak of work as play, that play takes place against a darker ground. Life is winged, flesh fragile, the world often cruel."

He has struggled to negotiate that "darker ground" in a number of his works, particularly in more recent years. In 1990, writing about the five-year process of making the "Re'eh Series," he said he knew when he began it that "the horror of the Holocaust, its incomprehensibility, the terrible ordeal of its victims, would occupy an undercurrent of my imagination over the time that would be needed to bring the group to completion."

The cruel realities associated with war and death are dramatically evoked in a more recent sculpture of iron and steel that was the largest piece Kremen exhibited in Chicago. Deathgate, as it is grimly titled, was completed in 1995 in the Duke sculpture studio where he sometimes works. Measuring roughly five by seven by eleven feet, this sculpture was prompted by unsettling images that Kremen associated with the various components--including a large steel drumhead, a many-bladed thresher sickle, and two large gear wheels--as he considered how to combine them. Not long after he finished the piece, he wrote that several of these objects initially called to his mind the image of an ancient war chariot, ridden by the "cruel blades" of the sickle. As the piece evolved, it took on the gatelike configuration reflected in the title Kremen assigned to it.

Deathgate and the other seventy-eight works Kremen exhibited in Chicago were selected to represent the full material and expressive range of his work. He insisted only that the show not include any of the collages or sculptures shown in the previous exhibition of his work in Chicago, in 1988 at the University of Illinois' Gallery 400 (selected by The Chicago Tribune as one of that year's ten best art exhibits in the city).

Following in the wake of works such as Deathgate and the Holocaust memorial collages, Kremen's three new relief combines--the Seriatim series--indicate that he has worked out a kind of aesthetic balance between addressing life's more horrifying dimension and celebrating the life-affirming, intuitive, open-ended exploration of visual expression for the sheer joy of it.

"My life is open," he says. "Even though my time horizon has narrowed, my life has opened up in the last year because I now have all these new possibilities that my work has led me to. Hell, I'm a lucky man."

Patterson, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is a freelance writer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor